FISH-SAFE – July’21

This year’s numbers of disabled vessels and medevacs are high in USCG District 1

Each year for one of the summer issues of CFN, I review the Coast Guard (USCG) District 1 data year-to-date to see if there are any safety topics that need to be brought to the fore. 

This year the number of disabled vessels seemed very high. This prompted a comparison with data for 2018 and 2019 (leaving out 2020 as not a typical year).

Through this comparison, it became clear that the number of “disabled vessels” for the period Jan. 1, 2021 through May 18, 2021 was 100% higher than for the same periods in 2018 and 2019. 

In 2021 there have been 31 incidents of disabled vessels compared to 14 and 16 for 2018 and 2019, respectively.

A review of the causes showed that engine casualties accounted for 74% of the 2021 disablements, but only represented 43% and 44% of the disablements in 2018 and 2019.

The category “engine casualty” does not include transmission casualty, fouled prop, steering, broken shaft, or clutch problems. Table 1 compares the disabled vessel and engine casualty data for 2018, 2019, and 2021. 

Table 1. Comparison of Number of Disabled Fishing Vessels and Engine Casualties: 2018, 2019, 2021, USCG District 1
YEAR – as of May 18 of  each yearNumber of disabled fishing vessels Number of engine casualties (#, %)
2018146, 43%
2019167, 44%
20213123, 74%

A “disabled vessel” call must be responded to by the Coast Guard, whereas a fouled prop could potentially be freed by the vessel crew.  Engine casualties, steering, clutch, and transmission problems usually require more intense efforts. 

In 2021, 29 of 31 disablements required the assistance of a third party to return the vessel to port.  In fact, as Table 2 shows, 12 of the disabled vessels were towed to port by the Coast Guard, and nine were towed by other fishing vessels.  

Table 2. Responders to Disabled Vessels
YEAR – as of May 18 of each yearTotal Disabled VesselsSelfUSCGOther FVComm-ercial tow or tugUnknownUSCG AND Commercial tow

For seven of the disablements, a commercial tug or Seatow was involved.  In one case, both the USCG and a commercial tow were involved.

This information for 2021 – the high numbers of disabled vehicles, the large number of disablements related to engine casualties, and the large number of disablements requiring third party towing assistance – suggests that most of these disablements were quite serious. 

What is behind these numbers? 

Were fishermen too eager to make up lost 2020 landings?

Were vessels that did not fish in 2020 not properly maintained or checked (valves, hoses, seals, clamps, oil, etc.)? 

Did the economy of the COVID year result in less cash to spend on proper engine overhauls? 

Did the messed-up supply chain mean that fishermen took chances going out while waiting for replacement parts? 

Clearly the reasons for the high disabled vessel numbers are many and difficult to quantify.

There is a lot at risk in disablement:

  • The safety of vessel crew and of responders; 
  • The loss of the day’s landings/income; 
  • The cost of commercial tow and of repair; and
  • The potential loss of the integrity of the vessel. 

Fishermen have always looked after each other, and indeed, many good Samaritan captains assisted these disablements.  But it should be noted that the good Samaritans took all the same risks the disabled vessel and its crew.

Hats off to responders who have the tow lines, the engine capacity, the know-how, and the willingness to assist in these situations.  Perhaps we can try to hold the disablements down for the rest of the year.

On the medevac front, 2021 has already seen between two and four times more medevac situations than in 2018 and 2019.

Table 3 shows the total number of incidences for each of the three years and breaks down the reasons into the three categories used by the Coast Guard: alcohol/drug-related possibly, health, and fishing operations.  In 2021 we have seen more of everything.

Table 3. Comparison of medevac data: 2018, 2019, 2021, USCG District 1.
Year – as of May 18 of each yearTotal MedevacsAlcohol/Drug-related, possiblyHealthFishing Operations

The three 2021 medevacs involving fishing operations included a crushed hand, cut-off finger, and a head injury due to gear entanglement.

 Is this higher incidence due to the presence of novice crew members, inattention, fatigue, rushing, and/or lack of a safety orientation to the work? 

The health issues included abdominal pain (3), seizure (1), possible heart attack (1), and sick (1). 

The alcohol/drug-related events were listed as possible alcohol/drug withdrawal (2) and overdose (1).  These drug incidents involved Coast Guard personnel from the Boston and Southeastern New England Sectors of USCG District 1.

Hopefully, this data will serve as a gentle warning that, as we enter the summer fishing season, there are actions that every captain and crew can take to help ensure that their fishing days are productive and protective of their health, safety, and livelihood – and that of their fellow fishermen.

Ann Backus, MS, is the director of outreach for the Harvard School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental Health in Boston, MA.  She may be reached by phone at (617) 432-3327 or by e-mail at <>.

  • Take the time to do periodic maintenance checks on the vessel and engine.
  • Collect from each crew member a sealed envelope with pertinent health information such as allergies, medications, and health issues to hand to the Coast Guard or EMS in the event of a medevac or other medical event.
  • Make it a practice to do short safety talks to remind crew members of the pinch points associated with the fishing operations.
  • Require each crew member to wear a personal flotation device.  There are many on the market now that are comfortable to work in.